Syracuse refugees vote in their first presidential election

Thousands of refugees have resettled in Onondaga County in the past 15 years. Today, many cast their ballots as naturalized U.S. citizens.

In a thick white peacoat and gold headscarf, Lul Hassan held her young son’s hand as she entered a polling station on Burt Street. A resident of Syracuse, she is far from her native country Somalia, which she left in 2004 at the age of 14. But she is now a citizen of the U.S., and voted in the presidential election this afternoon as a Muslim-American refugee.

Photo: Samantha Mendoza
Chingwa and Halima, two sisters from Somalia, voted together for the first time.

“[One of the candidates] say immigrants or terrorists or ISIS, even though I’m not one of them,” Hassan said. “I’m Muslim, but I am a citizen. My vote matters and my voice matters.”

Hassan became a U.S. citizen in 2010. She is one of the 7,210 refugees that resettled in Syracuse between 2001 and 2012, according to a report by the Onondaga County Citizens League, almost 2,000 of which were from Somalia.

Somali refugees have been fleeing the country for the past three decades, and many have found a new home in Syracuse.

At the polling station at the Almus Olver Towers right next door to RISE, the Refugee and Immigrant Self-Empowerment organization (formerly known as the Somali Bantu Community Association), many Somali refugees like Hassan exercised their new constitutional rights.


Mudhina Muganga, a Somali refugee who gained citizenship in 2011, brought her teenage daughter along to help her translate directions from the poll station volunteers. Although she arrived in the U.S. 10 years ago, this was her first time voting in a presidential election.

“It’s good,” she said, as she raised her fist in the air. “Only God knows what will happen. I will pray for Clinton to win.”

While the Onondaga County Board of Elections does not keep track of the number of refugees who register to vote, has reported Onondaga County records list approximately 700 registered voters who have common African and Asian names and list birthdates of Jan. 1, a date that many refugees use on official documents if they don't know their actual birthdate.

Immigration and refugee reform have been controversial topics throughout the 2016 election. But today, former refugees shared their voices in what is likely the most democratic process they have ever participated in.

Habiba Boru, an Ethiopian refugee who is now an adult literacy tutor at the Northside Learning Center, voted for the first time in the 2012 presidential election, and just last week organized a forum for Congressional candidates John Katko and Colleen Deacon to speak to more than 100 new citizens at the center.

“I was so excited to vote [in 2012], I can’t even describe it,” Boru said. “For many of us, we don’t have elections. We have never been able to participate in democracy, so this is very important for us.”

As refugees entered the polling station this afternoon, they were both optimistic and uncertain. Hassan said that she was not sure who would win the election, but wanted a bright future for her son.

“We don’t know what will happen,” Hassan said. “But I just hope that in this great nation, we will find someone who will lead it.”

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